CAN’T CATCH HIM—Courier photographer Thomas Sabol captures Steelers rookie RB James Conner escaping the grasp of Falcons defensive end Brooks Reed, Aug. 20 at Heinz Field. Conner had 98 yards rushing on 20 carries in his first professional game.

Rookie was impressive against Falcons, Bell eventually may choose to play elsewhere

By now, you know the score. The Steelers won their second preseason game over the Atlanta Falcons, 17-13, Aug. 20. To me, to the coaches and perhaps to you, that means nothing. Wins and losses are meaningless in the preseason, but how you play means everything in this world.

For some of these guys, they are playing for starting roles or to be the lead reserve at certain positions. Other guys are just trying to make the team and have a job. The coaches are looking at everyone intently and they certainly saw both ups and downs during this second of four exhibitions.

While I’m not a coach, I watch the battles intently and the first thing that stood out to me was the secondary. The good, perhaps the only good, was Jordan Dangerfield with his two picks. I think he has played his way onto the team through camp and with his preseason performance thus far. You must have presence in the secondary and Dangerfield exhibited that presence against Atlanta.

On the other hand, Ross Cockrell did not. I’ve long had an issue with Cockrell being a starter on this team as I think he’s better suited for the nickel package, and I think he proved that again on Aug. 20 vs. the Falcons. Whenever you know a cornerback because you see the back of his jersey so often, my friends, you have a problem. That used to be my issue with William Gay; it’s now Cockrell that has become that guy.

I don’t believe he can be the starter on a Super Bowl defense and ultimately, I think if Cam Sutton can get healthy and get some time on the field for the Black and Gold, he’ll overtake Cockrell for the number two spot.

It wasn’t just Cockrell though. Big plays and third down conversions were given up by this secondary too often throughout the game, to the tune of 255 passing yards allowed. I know that the starters didn’t play much of the game and Mike Mitchell didn’t suit up at all, but that has been the Achilles Heel for the Steelers for some time now and must be rectified sooner than later.

I’m very comfortable with the front seven and think the run defense will be one of the better ones in the league with the amount of talent they possess. Anthony Chickillo showed with his five tackles and two sacks against the Falcons that he can play well in big spots, and he and Arthur Moats will certainly continue to battle over the next few weeks for that top reserve role on the outside.

Offensively, I was most impressed by James Conner. Conner was afforded 20 carries in his first pro game action ever and he turned those carries into 98 yards. I was impressed by his quickness and ability to find the holes and while he dropped a few passes, I have no concerns about him catching the ball out of the backfield moving forward. He typically has sure hands and he’ll be fine the next time around. I had seen him in camp without pads and was impressed by both his speed and agility, but to see it at game speed confirmed what I had already suspected; Conner is going to be the starting running back in Pittsburgh starting in 2018 if Le’Veon Bell doesn’t lower his asking price. He has already shown me he has the talent to be a starting running back in the NFL, and soon.

Conner will certainly have a big role behind Bell this season and it’s starting to look like Josh Dobbs might have a bigger role than originally expected behind Ben Roethlisberger as well. I’ve been very impressed by Dobbs so far through camp and two weeks of the preseason, and while Landry Jones continues to remain on the sideline with an injury and Big Ben rests, Dobbs continues to get reps that a typical third stringer wouldn’t receive. He’s done fairly well through the first couple of weeks to the point that I think there is some serious consideration for him to be the backup sooner than later. I’ve been a big supporter of Jones through the years and think he’s a quality backup but Dobbs can play his way right into the job if he keeps this up. Quite frankly, I like Bart Houston as well but the team won’t keep four QBs, so the best-case scenario for Houston would be as a practice squad stashaway.

So, Saturday, Aug. 26 is fast approaching. The “dress rehearsal,” where the starters play at least three quarters to gear up for the regular season. I believe you’ll see just about all of the defensive guys play a significant amount of time at home vs. the Colts with the exception of Ryan Shazier and James Harrison. Everyone else will be asked to perform. Offensively, the play-calling will be relatively vanilla but I believe you’ll see a lot of the same in terms of starters playing at least a half, possibly three quarters with the exception of Big Ben and Antonio Brown. I think they’ll play, but I’d be surprised if they were out there for more than a quarter. Sammie Coates and Justin Hunter will be given their opportunities to prove why they belong on this team and special teams guys like Knile Davis and Trey Williams will show why they should be retained as well.

As you watch the game vs. the Colts, the score doesn’t matter…but the plays that are made, the effort put forth and the individual position battles do.

 

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